Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"Teacher, What's my Grade?"

Ten years ago, this question played a normal part of my teaching life. Occasionally, I printed out grades (names obscured by a code, of course) and taped them to the door, so students could see where they stood. A few kids might keep track of their grades in the back of their notebooks, but essentially, if they wanted to know the real numbers, they had to ask me.

As we rolled into the twenty-first century, however, school districts and technology made some changes. For about the past five years, I’ve been logging student grades into a Learning Management System that makes those grades available through the Internet. If the assessment isn’t an essay, I often have the grade posted by the end of the day; it just helps me keep track if I don’t let entering the grades pile up. Students’ averages are calculated by the minute, for them to stare at and for their parents to critique.

So now when a student strolls into class and says, “What’s my grade?” my chest clutches a little, and I hear, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” Unlike the old days, this student has access to all his or her grades. The question has come to mean, “What the hell are you doing to my grade?” Getting defensive isn’t helpful. I try to remember that despite the consumer/product nature of LMS grading systems, it is just a tool, and I am still the teacher. I try to smile and say, “Why, let’s look at it together, okay?” I know that this is Stage 1)—the stage where the student and I look at the potential problem. Stage 2) brings in the cavalry, and that can be exhausting…

Most of the time, the student has turned in make-up work that I have not graded and entered yet. LMS grading systems obscure the fact that I, a human being, am doing the grading and entering the data. Its instantaneous automation creates a false sense of “real time” for students. If they turn something in at 2 p.m., they expect to see it on the grading system by 6 p.m. While I do accept late work, I don’t usually grade it right away. Once students are sure I have their late work, they usually leave our meeting satisfied.

Sometimes, the problem rests with user error. Some students may be able to access their grades, but they don’t really understand how to read an incomplete course average, which can also be assuaged with two or three minutes of help from me. It is true that every so often, “What’s my grade?” leads to a testy confrontation, but really, that happened when I taped grades to the door, too. Something about the LMS grading system makes me feel more vulnerable. I guess because I used to decide when grades would receive the most scrutiny. I didn’t tape the grades up unless all the make-up work was entered or before I’d nagged students to make up missing tests. Now the grades are available for scrutiny 100% of the time. I’m organized—I’m smart—I can handle it! However, I am sorry that “What’s my grade?” now makes my back stiffen…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

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